The good news: Southwest Montana is experiencing near-record snow accumulations. The bad news: All that wet snow could cause some real problems, depending on how fast it melts.
Ray Nickless, hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Missoula, says the remarkable thing about the snow totals so far this year in the region is that the end of March and April are typically when a lot of moisture arrives, and we're already at levels that might be expected at peak snowpack time in mid to late April.
Add to that a long-range forecast for six more weeks of wet, cooler-than-normal weather, and the totals could reach record levels.
For example, Nickless said, the Basin Creek SNOTEL report shows about 10 inches of water in the snowpack, more than an inch above normal. In the Anaconda Range, levels are even higher. The Warm Springs SNOTEL site north of Georgetown Lake already registers 32 inches of water. Usually at peak snowpack in April, it only carries 25 or 26, he said. Similarly, the Barker Lakes SNOTEL site south of Anaconda already shows 19 inches, and it usually tops out at 15 or 16 in April.
"Usually these levels just take off at this time of year, and we're already above normal," Nickless said. "And given the forecast, we've got a lot of accumulation to go yet." He said the water year is shaping up to look a lot like those of 2011 and 2014.
And while you're celebrating all that great snow in the mountains, don't put your snow shovel away for the winter yet. Butte is expected to get "several more storm systems that could produce snow" in the next few weeks, Nickless warned.
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Nickless said National Weather Service staffers have been meeting with county officials in Missoula as flooding of the Clark Fork and Blackoot river systems is a definite possibility.
"Butte is far enough up in the headwaters that flooding isn't usually a concern, but Blacktail Creek in particular could be a nuisance if we get a fast melt," Nickless said.
"It's kind of hard to judge this time of year," said Dan Dennehy, Butte-Silver Bow's emergency management director. "We have several pallets of sandbags ready to go at the county shops. And we'll be watching it.
"Usually at the end of March we'll take a harder look at just how much we have in the Big Hole and Blacktail Creek drainages," Dennehy said. "We know there's a lot of water up there this year."
Dennehy pointed out that sometimes it's not just the snow levels that matter. "Last year we had ice jams that made for some flooding," he said. "As long as it's like it is now, with some thawing and then some freezing, it's okay, but when we get a significant period of time where it doesn't freeze at night, we could have a problem."